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Critic's notebook

Rose Art Museum shines at 50

From left: James Brooks’s ‘‘Rodado,’’ Willem de Kooning’s ‘‘Untitled,’’ Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘‘Second Time Painting,’’ and Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘‘Forget It! Forget Me!’’

Photos by Mike Lovett

From left: James Brooks’s ‘‘Rodado,’’ Willem de Kooning’s ‘‘Untitled,’’ Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘‘Second Time Painting,’’ and Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘‘Forget It! Forget Me!’’

With the nearly three-year-old controversy surrounding Brandeis University’s proposal to shut down the Rose Art Museum and sell off its artworks finally, it seems, resolved, we can at last get back to looking at art.

The Rose is offering a superb opportunity to do just that with three new shows celebrating the 50th anniversary of the museum’s founding. The museum and its superb collection have never looked better.

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But first things first: The proposal to sell, as is obvious now and should have been obvious to all at the time, was a mistake. It was a political and strategic mistake. Given that a lawsuit ensued, it was probably a legal mistake. And above all, it was a moral mistake. (Good working principle: Don’t sell things you received as gifts). It caused lasting damage to Brandeis University and permanent damage to the reputations of those who made the decision.

But a crisis (to invoke a cliche) can also be an opportunity, and good things have undoubtedly emerged from this debacle.

The Brandeis community and the wider public now know what a superb resource they have in the Rose. Too many people were ignorant of the museum’s strengths, and its singularity, before 2009. Knowledge is power; in this case, happily, it opens the door to intense pleasure, too.

Each of the three 50th-anniversary shows tells a chapter in the collection’s formation. The first, and the most triumphant, focuses on a few crucial years in the early 1960s, when the Rose’s first director, the brilliant Sam Hunter, acquired the masterpieces for which the Rose is best known today: works by Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Marisol, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Motherwell, and Andy Warhol.

The early ’60s were a stupendously fertile time in American art. The Abstract Expressionists, who had come to prominence after World War II, were being challenged by a new generation of creative mavericks, including Johns, Cy Twombly, Kelly, and Rauschenberg, and by Pop and Color Field artists like Warhol, Morris Louis, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, and Marisol. Society was in flux. Things were hopping. It was a moment.

And in the midst of this unfolding moment, Hunter, a former New York Times critic and curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, was given about $50,000 to spend on contemporary art for the Rose by a couple from New York, Leon Mnuchin and his wife, Harriet Gevirtz-Mnuchin, who had inherited the sum.

Hunter knew, through his activities as a curator, dozens of artists and gallerists. He had the judgment and perspicacity to buy from the best of them at a time when their reputations were far from established. He bought a masterful Lichtenstein, for instance, from that artist’s first solo show. (It sounds easy. But were you there?)

Curator Dabney Hailey has installed some of these Gevirtz-Mnuchin works, as well as related pieces from the early ’60s, in the museum’s beautifully renovated Gerald S. and Sandra Fineberg Gallery. The results are breathtaking. Each piece seems to flirt with and riff on the others, joking, teasing, and seductively winking like old friends with complicated histories in the sharp first hour of a cocktail party.

The Rose’s brilliant de Kooning, for instance - a gift from Joachim Jean and Julian J. Aberbach - hangs next to Rauschenberg’s “Second Time Painting.’’ Ostensibly, Rauschenberg (who once famously erased a drawing de Kooning had given him and presented the result as art) riffs on de Kooning’s brushy, splatter-laced pictorial language. But his colors are more strident, his work more expressly performative: It’s “action painting’’ in a mischievous new guise. There is an alarm clock attached to the canvas; Rauschenberg’s signal to stop painting, it turns out, was the alarm going off.

Marisol’s sculpture “Ruth’’ - a woman made from a wooden barrel, standing atop nine shapely legs, with six carved and elegantly painted heads and wooden fruit for breasts - is very close to being my favorite work in the show. Its pastel colors chime perfectly with the de Kooning’s pinks, yellows, and blues. But the work also channels the parodic spirit of Rauschenberg and the Pop euphoria of its neighbor, Lichtenstein’s “Forget it! Forget me!’’

And on it goes. Images of glamorous but generic femininity are found not only in the works by Marisol and Lichtenstein, but in a nearby Rosenquist, “Two 1959 People.’’ They’re given a twist by the clever pairing, not far away, of a Yayoi Kusama sculpture (a woman’s coat with dozens of soft, striped protuberances) and an Alex Katz painting (a woman wearing a coat).

Pulsing against this steady figurative impulse are commanding abstractions by James Brooks, de Kooning, Kelly, and Gene Davis. The Kelly - two blue, curving shapes on white - is the surest and fastest bolt of bliss to the nervous system I know of.

The show continues downstairs, and it is complemented in the Lois Foster Gallery by a fine exhibition highlighting the works that continued to come into the collection over the ensuing four decades.

A third installation brings to our attention a dazzling three-screen film piece - a high-speed montage in ecstatically sharp black and white - by the late Bruce Conner. It was first made and shown at the Rose in 1965 and laboriously restored in 2005-06.

It’s all immensely impressive. But it’s that first gallery that makes you pause, and think.

It’s the sort of gallery the Museum of Fine Arts would die to be able to display, but can’t, because it simply doesn’t have the quality to draw on. In fact, no other museum in New England, with the possible exception of Yale University Art Gallery, has such a powerful and coherent collection of postwar American art.

What’s more, no museum in the vicinity of Boston has the depth to be able to put this work convincingly in a wider context - teasing out connections not just with earlier strains of modern art, both American and European, but with the full gamut of contemporary productions. The Rose does.

Now that a lawsuit by Rose supporters has been settled with Brandeis agreeing not to sell the Rose’s collection, the university and museum are doing all they can to emphasize the Rose as a great resource within the university. This new tack makes sense: Part of the problem that led to the crisis was that the museum was not deeply embedded in campus life. It operated with remarkable independence and failed, some say, to make itself indispensable to the university that provided its home and original raison d’être.

Ellsworth Kelly, "Blue White," 1962.

And so when former Rose director Michael Rush invited an auction house to perform an evaluation on the collection, and then talked up its cash value (about $350 million) with the university’s leaders, hoping to impress upon them the Rose’s importance, his actions had a disastrously unintended consequence: The dollar signs lit up in their eyes, and they saw a quick solution to Brandeis’s financial crisis.

The new resolve - expressed to me by everyone from Brandeis president Frederick Lawrence to the Rose’s staff - to integrate the Rose more fully into Brandeis’s curriculum and life, is smart thinking.

But I believe it is also important to stress that the Rose is a resource for the wider public. Like the priceless art collections of Harvard, Yale, Smith College, and Williams College, the Rose’s collection inspires envy all over the world. Its quality makes it a destination for the public at large, and for scholars, curators, and students not just from Brandeis but from other schools, too.

The story of the Rose’s formation, which these three shows celebrate, is moving. It’s a story of which Brandeis should feel proud, and for which the rest of us should feel thankful. But its continuing viability and health are not just Brandeis’s concern: They are things in which we all have an interest.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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